When the coronavirus hits prisons & jails 'there will be pandemonium'
Lavonne Roach, Lakota Sioux, is currently incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution, Dublin in Dublin, California. It is a low-security federal prison for female inmates.
In an email shared through her daughter, Roach described the situation at the prison as quite hectic since the number of COVID-19 cases began to spike in the United States.
According to the facility’s website, visitation has been suspended until further notice but Roach is still concerned the virus might make its way inside the prison.
“The warden’s plan is unorganized, there is cross contamination,” Roach wrote in the email. “It will be the officers who will bring it into the prisons or new commits or transfers. It was our understanding the FBOP [Federal Bureau of Prisons] stopped transfers but they haven't.”
The state of affairs in the United States amid the COVID-19 pandemic is ever-changing. Every day, seemingly hour by hour, news continues to shift.
For better and for worse.
The population in prisons and jails has so far flown under the radar.
Along with the difficulties of practicing social distancing and ability to isolate in jails and prisons, Roach says cross-contamination has not been handled well in the way food is served and medical supplies handed out.
“Medical of all places are not sterilizing areas after each area is being used. The head of medical doesn't even use gloves to get medication out for pill line,” Roach said. “Nothing is wiped down and she uses her hands to give each persons meds in cup that they put to their lips. Staff is not taking any precautions from spreading coronavirus to inmate population. They have no masks, most have no gloves.”
The Montana Department of Corrections has increased its screening and education efforts for the staff and inmates in their facilities. In the state as a whole, Native Americans make up between six and seven percent of the total population. But in prison, the percentage of Native male and female inmates is much higher, 16.97 percent and 23.92 percent, respectively.
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Similar to the prison in Dublin, California, prisons under the Montana Department of Corrections have also suspended in-person visitation at the department’s secure facilities. They are also working with law enforcement to limit movement among facilities during this time.
“Within DOC secure facilities, we are closely monitoring inmate movement to allow as much opportunity for social distancing as possible,” communications director for the Montana Department of Corrections, Carolynn Bright said. “For example, meals are staggered to limit numbers of inmates in one area at any given time.”
Bright recognized the importance of in-person visits for inmates and said it was a difficult decision to suspend them. In an attempt to mitigate the suspension of visits for inmates, CenturyLink is providing inmates with one free phone call and one free video call per week.
Amy Povah, president of the CAN-DO Foundation, a non-profit that advocates for the clemency of non-violent drug offenders, was hoping to have the remainder of Roach’s sentence commuted before COVID-19 took off. Now, she says time is of the essence.
More recently, Povah and the organization helped secure the release of Crystal Munoz, a Navajo woman who had served 12 years in prison. To date, Roach has served 22 years of a 30 year sentence.
Povah is also worried about the possible spread of COVID-19 through correctional facilities. In a phone call with another prisoner the organization advocates for, she said he told her he was sick with the symptoms of COVID-19 but he was not given a test for the virus.
“This is very cruel but I wonder if this is a BOP [Bureau of Prisons] policy to not test because if anyone has it, there will be pandemonium. He said he wanted to know but some prisoners are sick and do not want to know because they are afraid they will be sent to segregated housing,” Povah said. “Frankly - it's chaos.”
Tuesday afternoon, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio called for the immediate release of 300 inmates due to COVID-19 concerns. The people who were eligible for their release all had less than one year remaining on their sentences and were convicted of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.
This move comes after an inmate from the Rikers Island correctional facility tested positive for COVID-19.
It is unclear if other cities or tribal governments will follow suit.
In the most recent “Jails in Indian Country” survey, released in December 2017 with information about the previous year, the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, reported that there were an estimated 2,540 held in 80 Indian Country jails in midyear 2016.
Of those inmates, 30 percent were held for violent offenses and the average length of stay in Indian Country jails was eight days.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union sent letters to state and local officials and the federal government calling for a number of actions to be enacted immediately to protect people involved in the criminal legal system.
Due to the overcrowding of many prisons and jails, the American Civil Liberties Union said people incarcerated are at an increased risk for infection.
“Public health experts recognize that there is a heightened risk of infection for people who are involved in the criminal legal system, and that downsizing the footprint of the criminal legal system should be a part of the COVID-19 public health response,” director of the ACLU’s Justice Division Udi Ofer said in a press release.
At the federal legislative level, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Massachusetts, wrote a joint letter to President Donald J. Trump pushing him to reduce the size of the federal prison population.
Overall, more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States, the most in the world.
The letter from Sen. Warren and Rep. Pressley said urgent action is needed and if it is taken by President Trump, it will lay a blueprint for state and local officials to do the same thing in order to save lives.
“For millions of incarcerated people, COVID-19 should not be a death sentence,” the women wrote.
Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/Gros Ventre is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
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